THE TRAGIC deaths of four American yachters at the hands of Somali pirates should reinvigorate the world’s attempt to quench piracy off the shores of East Africa. Fortunately, tried and true methods for thwarting pirates are available, despite the vast 2.5 million-square-mile Indian Ocean basin across which the intrepid pirates act and allied naval vessels attempt to patrol.
Although most of the pirate attacks have traditionally occurred in the Gulf of Aden, a busy 205,000-square mile shipping lane north and east of the Somali coastline, the careful convoying of thousands of freighters and tankers has greatly reduced attempted seajackings since 2009. Traffic in the gulf is watched over by warships of the US Fifth Fleet, European Union frigates belonging to Operation Atalanta, and various surveillance vessels belonging to India, China, and other concerned nations.
The anti-piracy successes have driven pirates much farther afield. Seajackings by Somali pirates now take place well east of the Seychelles, a good 1,000 miles from Somalia, and as far south as the waters off northern Madagascar, 500 miles away. This year, pirates have attempted more than 40 seajackings and have taken a dozen larger ships and tankers.
As of last week, more than 815 crew members from 50 ships await ransom in Somalia. At least $60 million in ransom money a year has been paid to the 1,500 or so pirates. Killing hostages has never been good for business; most pirates prefer to negotiate endlessly to obtain high prices for the return of ships and crews.
Interdiction by allied naval vessels is the first line of defense against piracy, but the Somali coastline is more than 1,800 miles long. Moreover, the coastlines along the greater Horn of Africa and Yemen total 5,510 miles.
Combating piracy begins with convoys organized and shadowed by the European or American naval forces and their fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Even far out in the Indian Ocean, vulnerable ships travel together. The ill fated yacht, The Quest, left such a convoy before it was captured sailing alone.
Most important, merchant vessels avoid pirates by steaming steadily at more than 16 knots, a speed that makes it almost impossible for pirates to approach and board. In 2009 and 2010, too many bulk carriers and oil tankers proceeded more slowly to save fuel, or because they were awaiting cargoes. No ships have been seajacked successfully when they were moving at speed.
Ships can also erect physical barriers such as barbed wire, grease the sides of the vessels, deploy high-pressure hoses and foam cannons to deter menacing pirate vessels (all of which are fast and small), carry bright lighting, and — an approach finally endorsed this month by ship-owners — carry trained armed guards. Refusing to pay ransom is not a wise response, putting crews at too much risk.
These sea-borne measures have all repelled pirate attacks. But the end of piracy can only come on land, when the youthful pirates obtain steady jobs. After all, piracy is an income-generating industry, not a way of life.
The world campaign against Somali piracy should also attempt to reestablish the now-dormant Somali fishing industry and provide funds to build roads, schools, and clinics in the affected areas — all to provide employment for ex-pirates. Ultimately, piracy will cease when the jobless are gainfully employed and when ship-owners make storming boats at sea much too dangerous.
Published in the Boston Globe on February 27th, 2011